You Know You’ve Made It One More Day

  

“My family comes from a very humble background in Buffalo, NY. The only thing I knew about college was that I couldn’t afford it. Without many other options nor a real plan I enlisted in the Army in the Delayed Entry Program, the summer after junior year. It was just a couple days after my 17th birthday, July 9, 2001. It was still peace time; two months later everything changed. My family was scared and didn’t want me to leave, but those events only reinforced my decision to serve our country. The attacks happened at the beginning of my senior year, and the day after graduation, I shipped out. After completing Basic and AIT, I was stationed in Hawaii. 

“I trained as an engineer. We do everything from repair roads to construct new buildings. My first deployment was non-combat related and we lived in the jungles of Thailand and built a school working with Thai soldiers and villagers. That was truly an eye-opening experience—getting to see how very little other countries and cultures really have. It was also my first time visiting a new culture outside of the country.”

“Not long after returning to Hawaii, my unit, The 84th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), was preparing to deploy to the Middle East. It was early 2004. I didn’t know what to expect. When we had orders for Iraq, the first thing I thought was how much it was going to suck surviving off of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, but we jokingly called them Meals Rejected by Ethiopians) for the year. My priorities as an 18-year-old probably weren’t in the best order back then. Most of them were terrible but everyone had one MRE they loved; mine was meatloaf.

“The first stop was Kuwait where we did more training before convoying north to Iraq. We were stationed at Balad, about 40 miles outside of Baghdad. I remember learning what an IED looked like during our training. My unit started building a hospital right off the bat. The hours were long and despite what people think, it was pretty chilly, rainy and muddy during the rainy season. It wasn’t sand, but dirt that was like moon dust because it was so dry and hot for the other months. Most soldiers were living in tent cities that offered very little protection from incoming rounds. As engineers, we were lucky to get some war-torn buildings that we fixed up and lived in. We had the occasional mortar attack and what not but nothing too intense for the first month or two. When that would happen, an alarm would sound and soldiers were supposed to take cover. It would happen time to time while I was talking to family back home. I’d say something like, ‘The guys are playing video games and it’s my turn, got to go, love you,’ and hang up. I think my mom secretly knew what was going on. At the end of the month, we heard about a convoy that was ambushed. A few contractors were killed; their maimed and desecrated bodies were displayed on a bridge and that began the battle of Fallujah. Things got pretty intense at that point.

“Through it all, there were a lot of positive experiences. We finished building the hospital and the doctors were saving lives in it every day- not only soldiers but civilians, and I was told even enemy combatants. I’ve seen the hospital in Balad featured on television and in magazines. One time, my unit pooled our money together to buy gifts and make donations to the civilians who lived in the area. Children always approached us, and the local village leader was grateful for our support. As part of the ‘Hearts and Mind’ initiative, we volunteered in the community. We were literally and figuratively bridging gaps to make life better for the people there. We repaired the vet clinic and helped out where we could. For the most part, the people were happy we were there.

“I was deployed for two years. That’s too many experiences to sum up in a brief conversation, but people still ask, so I try to talk about the better aspects. It may sound strange but I looked at our time there as though we were guests in the Iraqi people’s backyard. I always tried to respect everyone we encountered and many of my fellow soldiers did the same; we really had a great group. Stop-loss turned my four years of service into almost five. On Christmas Day 2004, we were told not to get too comfortable when we arrived back to Hawaii; we already had orders for another year long deployment. 

“As time went on, the bases changed a lot and our missions changed too. The use of IEDs skyrocketed. I was on Task Force Ripper, riding in and driving mine detecting vehicles. I honestly loved it. Sometimes leaving the wire, you get a nervous curiosity wondering if that’s going to be it. I’ll never forget responding to an IED that had just blown up a fuel truck. The crater it made was so massive; it’s hard to describe, but I remember thinking you could completely fit a tractor trailer in the hole. We mostly did night operations for Ripper, often we’d return at dawn and seeing the sunrise in Iraq was one of the most beautiful things. You’re in this ancient civilization, and you know you’ve made it one more day.”

“Readjusting after getting out was tougher than anything I did in uniform. The two questions people always ask you is ‘Have you killed anyone?’ and ‘Did you have any friends get killed?’ Please don’t ask us that. Some don’t like to talk about their experiences at all, but, many other soldiers want to share since they made a positive impact. A better question is ‘What was your experience like?’ or ‘What did you like about your time in the service?’ Some people have the impression that we were over there killing people and that’s it, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much more to war, at least when I was there. We built schools, bridges, homes, provided infrastructure. I feel like we did our part to make it better. My friend just wrote a book about our deployments titled ‘The Soldier’s Story: The Invisible Wounds from War.’ We were on the cover of a book titled ‘Courage After Fire’ and were also the case matter for a controversial Rolling Stone article which came out in late August 2016. It was titled ‘Abandoned in Iraq: Inside Two Soldiers’ Harrowing Escape.’ I was only on one mission that they talk about, not the main one, so while I can’t speak for its content, I think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of different perspectives and experiences that each soldier goes through. 

“It’s been almost 10 years since my discharge, and it’s still an adjustment. Under the GI Bill I earned two Bachelor’s degrees from SUNY College at Buffalo and a Master’s from NYU. I was fortunate enough to study abroad in places like Italy and China. Now, among other work I am considering pilot school since I still have education benefits remaining. Service members really should use the education and other benefits they have earned. I also did a great program for combat vets called The Wall Street Warfighters Foundation, which helps returning vets get skills and secure careers in Wall Street or other related financial industries. It all pointed me into the direction where I am now with a start-up company called Pagita based in Italy. Working and finding hobbies like surfing and playing guitar helped me with the down time. That’s what I recommend to recently discharged vets. 

“It’s tough to go from 100mph to a complete and abrupt halt. Even if soldiers don’t have PTSD, some may still have a form of separation anxiety. They say 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Whatever the number may be, it’s too high. So many soldiers are kids fresh out of high school; they are sent to the real world, making life or death decisions at a young age, the leave the service feeling lost. Some just need guidance and mentorship. I recommend American Corporate Partners for anyone in that situation. I am still proud of my service and spent a few years helping veterans from all backgrounds through the higher ed process. I look back with pride. I think most of us do, but that’s not the only defining moment for us. 

“We don’t want handouts; we want opportunities to prove ourselves. You don’t have to give a soldier a job just because he or she is a vet, but I promise 99 times out of 100 you will be happy with the results you receive. Just have a little patience, especially the new ones. There’s always so much more to our stories.” #humansonthehomefront

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